The president of the college where I work and the governor of the state were supposed to come through my office today. One of my first thoughts when I heard they would be coming was basically, “I’d better make sure to have my best playlist on.”
BECAUSE THEY ARE IMPORTANT PEOPLE.
And because they would notice that? Sure. Sure, they would.
They turned out not to be the actual visitors, but I still think putting on your best playlist is good etiquette.
Out in the world are others who have experienced the same social annoyances I have, like being asked if I’m sure I don’t want any dessert or being told to smile. The great proliferation of internet blogs almost universally ensures that I can find those people, learn from them, and feel less alone. I can realize why something bothered me, see how someone else solved it, or see how they chose to accept it. But there’s one social problem I’ve never seen anyone else write about.
What do you do when you’re a Kristin who goes by Kris, and others revert your name to Kristin the instant you find yourself in a grouping with a Christopher who goes by the phonetically identical Chris, supposedly to avoid confusion? What do you do when others refuse to use your chosen name the instant someone who ranks higher in the patriarchy shows up?
As a child, I signed all my drawings KRIS, written in capital letters that took up the entire back of the paper. I knew Kris was my name before I knew Kristin was. One day, at either daycare or Sunday school, I drew my picture, flipped it over, and wrote KRIS in my enormous, wavering crayon lines. When I took it home at the end of the day, I noticed the teacher had written “Kristin” in the upper right corner, in tiny, ballpoint penmanship.
Kristin is my full name. Kris is my name. But after that, I knew to go by Kristin at school.
Fifth grade was a year that even now, I remember being one of the best in my life. I had lived an entire decade, made it to the top of the school, and collected enough Lisa Frank stickers to trade with my best friends, who were all in the same class as me that year. High on the power of a ten-year-old, I took a bold stand: I wrote “Kris” at the top of a worksheet. Then I did it again. I didn’t stop.
I asked the friends who didn’t already call me Kris if they could do so.
One of them told me, “I can’t call you Kris. It’s a boy’s name.”
This, of course, is not actually true. It’s not even uncommon for Christines, Christinas, and Kristins* to go by Chris/Kris, although I didn’t meet any others until I was an adult. My grandmother and my aunt, both named Crystal, went by Crys at times. Since I called them “Grandma” and “Aunt Crystal,” the fact that they had the same name as me didn’t sink in until later. So when my friend said Kris was a boy’s name, it felt true.
My name was short and boyish, and I wasn’t supposed to use it. I was like Nancy Drew’s friend George. And we all know that George is the awesome friend because no one remembers the other one.
I was Kris.
I’ve wondered how no one else on this internet has this problem, or at least how no one has written about it. Or if they have written about it, why it’s been so hard for me to find.
There are several conditions that must be in place for the Kris problem to occur. You need:
A female first name with
a gender-neutral nickname, which
is actually used by males as well, and
is common enough that males and females (and those of varying gender identities) will encounter each other.
Which is to say, I thought that loads of people must have experienced this, but it may not be a common problem at all. Most other Kristins I’ve met go by Kristin. Who else has this problem? Jessicas who go by Jess? Danielles who go by Dan? Samanthas who go by Sam? I’ve only known one female Dan and one male Sam. But I’ve known loads of Chrises.
Here’s a scenario I’ve experienced repeatedly in group settings: “I’m Josh.” “I’m Ashley.” “I’m Chris.” “I’m Kris too.” “Uh-oh, there’s another Kris.”
At this point, the meddling Josh or Ashley will propose a solution before a problem even comes up: “Well, you can just go by Kristin.” I don’t know why it falls to the Meddling Ashley to do this, but that’s the pattern. It’s never the other Chris.
This has happened at school, at more than one job, at family gatherings, and with friends. It’s happened even when my presence in a group predates the other Chris. Wherever there are Chrises, this has happened to me. The irony isn’t lost on me: I kept my name when I got married, but I’m constantly giving up my name.
Aside from my partner, no one is really aware that this happens. It’s a textbook example of a micro-aggression.
And aside from my boldness in fifth grade, it took me years to get to the point at which I decided to casually, if the moment was right, ask for people to call me Kris after they had already been calling me Kristin for quite some time.
I’m introverted and non-confrontational, so even something like “Hey, can you call me Kris? I’d really prefer it.” felt like a huge stand.
But my own personal, inner victory, the fact that I had asked at all, has most often been swept away by the responses I get. The typical response is for my request to be ignored.
Second place goes to: “Oh, but I’m so used to calling you Kristin.”
I don’t hate the name Kristin. Sometimes, in a particular mood, or when I’m at the DMV, it’s how I refer to myself. My parents call me by both names.
But the more I’m called Kristin after requesting Kris, the more the name irritates me. That’s because it’s not about the name itself; it’s about the blatant disregard, sometimes after repeated requests, that this is not what I want to be called. It’s someone talking to me while looking into another’s eyes. It’s being smeared like so much dry erase marker across a board.
That’s a Chris problem, Kris.
It’s much rarer for anyone to put in the effort to change what they had been calling me. But when someone does make the effort, even if I’m still Kristin about half the time, the feeling of being smeared disappears, replaced by the warmth and knowledge that I have been seen and heard.
When I worked occasional Thursday mornings at my old security job, I would come in as the sun rose. An hour later, a short, slim woman with sharp eyebrows would come in to help patients. A former librarian, she stored baggies of peanut butter sandwiches in her glove compartment the way others do granola bars.
Her name was Chris.
A few hours after that, another woman would come in. She was also small, with glasses and bobbed hair, and a sort of jovial matter-of-factness about her.
Her name? Also Chris. Now there were three of us.
We compared root names: two Christines and a Kristin. No one said, “Maybe you should go by Kristin,” or “You should go by Christine.” We made cheesy jokes about being a club, and laughed when someone said “Chris,” and three people turned around.
Never, in any situation with multiple female Krises and Chrises, has a Meddling Josh proposed that someone stop going by Kris.
We simply deal with any small confusions that arise because they aren’t actually a big deal.
I’ve observed in groups with two males of the same name that it isn’t an issue there either. Everyone gets used to Mike and Mike, or adds extra information to the contentious name. Then you have John One and John Two, Big Steve and Little Steve, Alex K. And Alex F., or Proper Dave and Medium Dave in Terry Pratchett’s The Hogfather. It’s possible that John Two, Little Steve, and Alex F. have some simmering resentment over their names. But I’d rather be Kris Two, Little Kris, or Kris F. because that would mean someone listened to me. Even though my last initial isn’t F.
Here are some measures I’ve learned to take:
Introduce myself as Kris. Not even, “Hi, I’m Kristin. I go by Kris.” People who don’t know the name Kristin don’t call me by it.
Have my partner be a spotter, pointedly refer to me as Kris, and correct people.
Don’t assume that anything is a big enough hint. Don’t assume that using my preferred name online is a big enough hint. When I finally joined Facebook, I thought that using the handle “Kris Bowser” would be a hint. I thought that owning krisbowser.com would be a hint. But I’m sensitive to this, and apparently, it’s not a big enough hint.
Don’t even assume that setting your chosen name in 64-point Garamond on your wedding invitations–normally a full name kind of space–will be a big enough hint.
But I’ve learned to turn those outwards too:
Pay attention. Call people by the name they introduce themselves as.
Take a hint. Don’t assume that someone is typing their name a certain way for no real reason–assume it was a choice.
If someone asks to be called another name, give it a shot. Try. Don’t say I’m too used to the first name, as if I’ve never had to adapt to something in your life before.
Don’t assume a name is someone’s preference just because I hear others using it. Ask.
And don’t assume it’s not a big deal. You don’t know how strongly someone else holds their name preference, what it signifies, or how it empowers them.
I spent thirty-two years as a person before adding diaper changes, wrap carriers, and checks to see if the baby is still breathing since five minutes ago to my life. In those thirty-two years, I accumulated a cluttered attic’s worth of the thoughts and idiosyncrasies that make up any life. Parenthood is a particularly intense addition to the list of things I am, which is a mom who is also an entire person. At least, that’s my view of it. Socially, I now exist in the narrow construct of The Mom Box, where my entire identity is filtered through a set of assumptions about mothers and motherhood.
It’s not a huge revelation that we have certain cultural ideas about what a mother is, or that those ideas aren’t awesomely inclusive. But encountering how those ideas manifest out in the wilds of social interaction has been a revelation for me. I encounter an unusual degree of surprise at things that I would think are fairly benign, such as having a job, writing, keeping my birth name, and enjoying hamburgers.
“I understand now what you meant about starting to feel like a person again,” said my cousin’s partner at a cookout a few months ago. I had no memory of saying this when I brought my four-month-old daughter to their baby shower, but it sounds about right.
Most parents agree that the bootcamp stage wears off. Some told me it would be at one month—the time when my own breastfeeding difficulties peaked with stress-inducing feeding schedules meant to help an off-the-charts underweight baby. Some said it would wear off at three months or six.
During my three-month parental leave, baby demands took up entire mornings and pushed my morning coffee to one in the afternoon. I’d be lucky if I got a ten-minute break. And no, I don’t consider watching Doctor Who during an hour-and-a-half breastfeeding session to be a break: my muscles hated it.
My toddler, fresh out of babyhood, still needs a lot of love, care, and smartphone pictures of owls. Toddlerhood has proven to also be an intensive time. Already, I know it ends too. But I now have more breathing room than the ten-minute coffee breaks of my maternity leave. That’s obvious from the fact that I’m writing this currently-2,000-word blog post.
As the months passed, I found the other pieces of my personhood again. I’ve had this blog for five years—you can click through and see my identity as a person independent from my role as someone’s mother. I am well past the stage when entire days and all my thoughts are subsumed by childcare duties. Unless you ask anyone else.
Then the entire rest of my existence is negated.
Don’t have complaints. Don’t have opinions. Don’t have emotions.
“Here is a thing I’m bitter about,” I might tell you.
“But at least you have a kid,” you say.
Yes, that is nice. We have fun, the kid and I. But that doesn’t make me not bitter about The Thing, or invalidate any unhappiness. A toddler isn’t a panacea for everything else wrong in someone’s life. Bitter regrets and mental illnesses don’t pop like soap bubbles touched by tiny, chubby fingers.
“You cut your hair! That haircut must be a lot easier with a toddler,” you say.
No, it really isn’t.
A pixie cut demands more maintenance, whether that comes in the form of at-home haircuts (my choice) or extra trips to a professional. Motherhood is also not why I have this haircut; I’ve had a pixie for the better part of the last nine years because I like it. I like how it’s short and spiky. I like how it compels people to compliment my cheekbones, a part of my skeleton that I can honestly say I’d never thought about once, until I went short.
I gave my toddler the same haircut. Is that because she’s a mom?
No, it is not.
I’m calling it The Mom Box because it’s a sequel to The Female Box. I’m somewhat socially obtuse, and so it took me until my mid-twenties to even begin to understand the extent to which others define me by my femaleness, and filter all other aspects of my personality through this. I started calling it “The Female Box,” in my head, and I’ve noticed others have used this term as well. The fact that so many of us thought of it independently speaks volumes about the experience.
Here are some features of The Female Box:
Doubt that I can lift fifty pounds.
Suggestions that I might as well have a man lift something for me rather than bother doing it myself.
Suggestions that a man, who like me, is not a mechanic, will be able to repair my car when I can’t.
Questions about whether I plugged in the electronic device I’m having a problem with
Assertions that I do certain things because “girls always do this,” even when the thing in question isn’t something I do.
Being referred to as a “girl” past the age of thirty.
Surprise that I know how hand sanitizer works.
Questions about whether the typically-male job I am performing is actually my job, including when I was a security guard and wore a uniform.
The amount of gendered baggage that goes with motherhood was a huge deterrent to me becoming a mother, and one of the biggest reasons that having a child was such a difficult decision for me. How could it not be, when I had spent so long rebelling against every gender expectation I could? I told a friend of mine that I had to rebel against my own rebellion in order to figure out what I, myself, wanted for my own reasons.
Even knowing I would have to face The Mom Box, and even knowing what The Female Box felt like, I wasn’t prepared for quite how confining a space it is. When I talk about The Mom Box, think about The Female Box, and add an advertising line to it:
All that, and more!
Here’s my definition: The Mom Box is a social construct in which motives, choices, actions, opinions, lack of opinions, personality, emotions, identity, and gender identity are assumed to derive from motherhood alone rather than other aspects of personhood, and are also externally circumscribed by one’s role as a mother, or perception of one’s role as mother.
One day, some acquaintances–a young guy and an older one–were talking about fast food. “Are you a McDonalds or a Burger King or a Wendy’s person?” kind of thing. Five Guys came up. I mentioned that I like Five Guys because they make a lettuce wrap, and wheat spring-clamps my digestion.
Cue the older dude, with the absolute surprise of learning that someone has been making a time machine in their garage: “You like hamburgers?”
This isn’t someone who knew that I tend to be a healthy eater, and was a vegetarian over ten years ago. This is someone who didn’t know the first thing about me, including at that point, my name. Why would it be a huge surprise that I like one of the most popular foods in America?
I assume that in the Mom Box, the only foods I eat are sad little foil-covered cups of low-fat Yoplait yogurt and chicken breast with some kind of obligatory vegetable side dish, which I can tell you amazing trivia about, such as its Weight Watchers points value, and how it’s flavored with bottled salad dressing and celery salt, and how the vegetables are a pretty good price at Stop and Shop right now.
Further, I assume that the walks I’ve replaced my lunch breaks with at work are a dutiful substitution I have made because “they” told me to–not because walking fulfills about a dozen functions in my life.
In The Mom Box, I probably don’t talk about the recent workers’ strikes at Stop and Shop, and whether or not they were resolved. Or the creepy robot with the glowing eyes that patrols the aisles looking for spills of meatbag blood that it made itself milk to clean.
Obviously, that’s silly. Those robots don’t slice people open. They vaporize them with their glowing blue eyes! I saw it on the Today Show! Or whatever I’m supposed to be watching.
I didn’t think it was so surprising that I write–I’m a rather quiet person with a decent vocabulary and I’m told that I have competent, if occasionally awkward, communications skills marred by only a slight Massachusetts accent. But writing assumes expressing independent thought, putting something OUT into the world when I am only supposed to be taking in what others have told me.
And it goes on and on. I must be so busy! I mean, I don’t have as much alone time as I’d like, but I’m hardly swamped. I must have a part-time job because I have a child, not because I want to leave time for writing and freelancing. Sure, it could be both, but finding a part-time job I could pay my bills on and leaving that time for other pursuits was a plan that pre-dated the kid by three years.
As I’ve written this post, I kept asking myself, “Does this even matter if it amounts to a social annoyance? Or even social exhaustion?” In my life, this is my strongest experience with The Mom Box. I’m still in the early days, and have years ahead of me.
What opportunities aren’t mothers told about because of others’ assumptions? What conversations are we kept out of because we wouldn’t be interested? To take these questions slightly too far, what if moms are the people sitting in the cave in Plato’s Republic?
I can try to break the box; I can eat a hamburger and write and yell and punch through the cardboard. But I can’t control other people’s thoughts, or read them. Even though I should be able to do that. Fuck you, patriarchy!
People always ask, now that I have a child, could I ever imagine life without her?
Seeing as I had a life for thirty-two years before she came on the scene, yes, I can. Seeing as I have friends without children, yes, I can.
Seeing as I write fiction and therefore inhabit the lives of people who are not myself, yes, I can. That last one makes the implications of the question a tiny bit insulting. Or it would, if the question were literal.
But I’m not supposed to imagine a life without her—that’s the point. “Could you ever imagine a life without her?” isn’t a real question about my imaginative faculties; it’s a litmus test of how thoroughly I have left behind everything else that I was. Have I been properly dip-dyed in motherhood? Did I bleach out my residual personality first?
I’m not supposed to answer that I could imagine a life without her.
I’m not supposed to answer that sometimes I relate more to women who are childless by choice.
I’m not supposed to be writing this post.
Or, if I do write it, I’m supposed to add like three paragraphs of qualifiers in case you misinterpret and think I don’t really love my kid, when I already went a bridge too far by imagining a life without her. I’m going to note here that my toddler doesn’t Mom-Box me; she knows me by my words and actions, not by a set of stereotypes.
Back when I was in The Female Box, I thought I knew what The Mom Box was all about. But I’m still the same socially obtuse person who took all those years to recognize The Female Box. I needed almost a year to realize that people were acting weird because I had been put in The Mom Box. And I needed the entire thinking process of this post to realize I had the whole thing wrong. This one had a long thinking process, too. I wrote the first notes almost seven months ago.
My toddler loves a book called Not a Box. It’s about the imaginative possibilities of a plain cardboard box to be a robot suit, a pirate ship, or anything else. In the end, the rabbit-protagonist decides that it isn’t a box, but a Not-a-Box. It can be anything.
The Mom Box is also not-a-box, but in the opposite way.
A box is used to hold a three-dimensional item.
The Mom Box doesn’t permit three-dimensional items or people, which means it’s more of a folder. And you can only shove so many papers into a folder before the seams start fraying.
Save the phrase “It’s just politics” for things like low-blow campaign ads and candidates fighting on Twitter. When you use it in reference to issues that impact other people’s lives, you reveal not only that these things don’t apply to your life, but also that you have a woefully narrow perspective.
When I bought Ellsworth Kelly stamps at the post office, I lied and pretended I knew who he was. The clerk expressed his surprise that they’d put out the Kelly stamps so quickly–he’d died fairly recently.
“Oh, that’s true,” I said.
In college, the teachings of Socrates inspired me to stop pretending I knew things in order to look smarter. Instead, I decided to just ask. I might look ignorant, but it would be better for me in the long term.
Asking is better than looking something up online later; you get a human perspective that’s missing from Wikipedia. Sometimes, also, you realize that other people don’t always know what they’re talking about.
Since I didn’t ask the clerk, I had to look up Ellsworth Kelly myself.
Kelly led a long life, made tons of art, and passed away in 2015. The single awesomest thing I learned about him? He was part of a WWII unit called “The Ghost Army,” which deceived the Germans into thinking there were allied armies where there were none. PBS made a documentary about it–I know the next documentary I’m watching.